Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 4

The Senate testimony yielded few revelations. Skeptics like George Kennan warned that the “preoccupation” with Vietnam was under¬mining America’s global obligations; Rusk, chain-smoking under the glare of the lights, again portrayed the conflict as part of a worldwide struggle to stop “the steady extension of Communist power through force and threat.” Still, the hearings provoked Americans to think about the war, and raised important questions.
Fulbright seemed to become more and more haunted by the war as the months passed. In April, he delivered a series of lectures at Johns Hopkins University where, a year earlier, Johnson had offered Ho Chi Minh a huge aid package in exchange for submission. The United States, declared Fulbright, was “in danger of losing its per¬spective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it.” In displaying an “arrogance of power,” he went on, “we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilized example for the world.” Johnson, who believed Fulbright had personally smeared him as “arrogant,” riposted by labeling the senator and other foes of the war as a bunch of “nervous Nellies” who lacked the courage to drive on to victory.
Still another nuisance was the venerable newspaper columnist Wal¬ter Lippmann, who exerted enormous influence on Washington in¬siders—and, through them, the rest of the nation. Johnson had promised him that the war would not be escalated, but now Lippmann felt deceived, and their relationship degenerated into an acrimonious feud. Johnson resorted to snide and salacious remarks about Lippmann, even accusing him of aiding and abetting the enemy, and Lippmann responded with equal rancor, privately calling Johnson “the most disagreeable individual ever to have occupied the White House.” He also delivered an unusually angry tirade against Johnson in his column of February 3: the president had “never defined our national purpose except in the vaguest, most ambiguous generalities about aggression and freedom,” he wrote. “Gestures, propaganda, public relations and bombing and more bombing will not work.” He pre¬dicted that Johnson would eventually find himself “in a dead-end street” unless he revised his Vietnam policy. And, with acute pres¬cience, he foresaw domestic turmoil: “The division of the country will simply grow as the casualties and costs increase, and the attain¬ment of our aims and the end of the fighting continue to elude us.”
The economic costs of the war were climbing even as Lippmann wrote. In July 1965, when Johnson granted General Westmoreland forty-four combat battalions, he had calculated that the conflict would require roughly two billion dollars for the year ahead. But the real figure ran to four times that amount—and worse was yet to come. As McNamara planned the military budget for the fiscal year ending in June 1967, he estimated that annual expenditures on Vietnam would range from eleven billion dollars to seventeen billion dollars. As it turned out, the war consumed twenty-one billion dollars that year, and the price would continue to rise.
Compared to past conflicts, the war was not costly. By the middle of 1967, it was absorbing only about 3 percent of America’s gross national product, the country’s total output of goods and services— compared to 48 percent for World War II and 12 percent for the Korean war at their peaks. But the economic burden of Vietnam, though relatively modest, frightened Johnson. He feared that even the slightest accommodation to the war would compel him to sacrifice some of his domestic programs—and, more critically, awaken the public to the costs of the commitment. He wanted to wage the war without paying for it—-just as he repeatedly refused to admit that he was escalating the conflict whenever he raised the troop level or stepped up the bombing. So he procrastinated, juggling and faking and con¬cealing the statistics in a desperate attempt to avoid increasing taxes, the only way he could foot the bill. The subterfuge worked until the summer of 1967, when the numbers could no longer be fudged. Early in August, prodded by his economic specialists and outside business advisers, Johnson reluctantly proposed a 10 percent tax surcharge on individual and corporate incomes. Congress delayed passage of the proposal for nearly a year, and the budget deficit, which had soared to almost ten billion dollars for fiscal 1967, skyrocketed to triple that figure the following year. The inflation spiral that was eventually to cripple the United States and the rest of the world had begun its dizzy ascent.
Johnson was correct to have anticipated an adverse reaction to the tax increase. Approval for his handling of the war dwindled steadily from the summer of 1965. Now, for the first time, opinion crossed a significant barrier: a survey published in October 1967 showed that 46 percent of the public regarded the commitment to Vietnam as a “mistake,” while 44 percent continued to back it. Still, the over¬whelming majority of Americans opposed withdrawal and favored tougher attacks against North Vietnam. The studies disclosed another phenomenon: endorsement of the war was strongest among the college-educated, upper-income middle classes whose sons were least likely to be conscripted for combat under the deferment system. Even so, the confused and uncertain national mood at the time was probably best summed up by the housewife who told a pollster: “I want to get out, but I don’t want to give up.”
After the war, many politicians, generals and even journalists re¬proached the news media for having disenchanted the American peo¬ple. Westmoreland implied, for instance, that it was through American reporters in Vietnam that “the strategists in Hanoi indirectly manip¬ulated our open society, and hence our political system.” But the press, with all its shortcomings, tended to follow rather than lead the U.S. public, whose opinions were usually shaped more by such events as the tax surcharge or the death of a local boy than by television broad¬casts and newspaper commentaries.

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